How to Prepare for War as a Civilian (Read It NOW if You Live Abroad)
I live in Poland, less than three hours from the Ukrainian border, where a war is currently raging.
Because I’m assuming you never read my bio (who reads it after all?), I start by saying that, besides being a writer, I am also the owner of a tourist hostel in Warsaw. We frequently host international backpackers and transit tourists.
But not right now. Almost all of my rooms are occupied by people who have fled the war in Ukraine, a country that, until recently, was not on the list f the most dangerous places in Europe.
Many of my guests now are women, children, and elders. Some have arrived after days of traveling through difficult border crossings, checkpoints, and congested roads.
Every day, I have to reject over 30 calls from people requesting a room because we are full and have a waiting list. It is painful to see.
Having said that, it has also been a learning experience (check here 3 incredible stories of solidarity I witnessed with refugees in Poland). I discovered what these people wished they could do before the war starts by talking to them.
Familiar with other conflicts (before moving to Poland, I lived in the middle-east, one of the most stressful places in the world), I also pondered about what to do after a war.
This small guide arose from these discussions, reflections, and research. It is also inspired by Poland’s emergency service manual on what to do in case of war. War is not exactly something new or unknown in Europe, and adult residents of cities like Sarajevo or Belgrade are familiar with this kind of violent event.
I hope you enjoy reading it.
I hope you never need to use it.
What to Do in Case of War
How to Prepare Financially for War
The emphasis here is on escaping the war zone as safely and with as few losses as possible, therefore, I will not guide you on how to create survival kits that would rather be useful if you decide to stay inside the military invasion zone.
PS: This is not financial advice, but what I would do (in fact, I have already done most of the things in this list).
- Withdraw a substantial sum from your bank account. Bank runs are common on the eve of war, and ATMs may run out of money. I’d take enough to last at least two months, if not longer.
- If there are chances that your country will be directly involved, avoid keeping local currency. Why?
Because it will quickly depreciate if war breaks out. Besides, exchange houses may refuse it. This is one of the most difficult challenges that Ukrainian refugees face in Poland, as the Ukrainian currency (Hryvnia) has depreciated significantly and is no longer accepted by many exchange houses.
- Change your local currency for a neutral currency (yes, I am talking about you, Swiss Franc). Be aware that this should be done before the war as rates will be high during the conflict.
- Exchange hard-to-carry assets for mobile, easy-to-carry assets, like gold.
This may raise a question:
Will Gold Go Up if There Is a War
People that are used to investing in risky countries are familiar with how useful are hard assets like Gold.
Gold is expected to increase in value, drastically, before the war starts. The prices may also raise after failed negotiations and when the conflict is prolonged.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter if gold prices will go up or not. In the case of war, you are not investing in gold, but using it as a value storage. You can bury it in your garden, making it much more difficult for looters or an invading army to steal it.
Besides, you cannot carry your plasma TV in your pocket when you are escaping from a war zone. Unless you have a Gulfstream jet ready to evacuate your family members like Peter Thiel.
Check also: The World’s Least Stressful Cities
What to do if the invasion already started?
Before the Russian invasion on February 24, foreign intelligence agencies warned of a Ukrainian invasion. While the invasion’s scale was unexpected, the invasion itself was expected.
If you find yourself in or close to a war zone, this is what you should do:
- Have an escape wallet ready, with your documents, cash, passport, and keys.
- Research flight schedules and build a plan in case of emergency. Check also the train routes, as well as the fastest ways to the border in case air transport and railways are disrupted.
- If you are a foreigner, like me, contact your embassy and ask about possible contingency plans.
- If your country does not have an embassy nearby, contact a diplomatic mission from another country. During the evacuation in Ukraine, for example, the Brazilian embassy in Kyiv also assisted citizens from Ecuador and Argentina.
- Carry with you ALL documents that attest ownership of vehicles, land, houses, assets, and so on. This includes fiscal receipts, notarized acts, and transfer notes. This step is crucial to demand compensation once the war finishes, and is often neglected by people fleeing a country.
Many of the suggestions above are based on the assumption that you want to flee before war breaks out. My respect if you wish to remain and defend your land.
- Nominate reliable people located abroad for the guardianship of your children, to protect them if the worst happens. Put their name in your life insurance policy.
Should I stay or should I flee if war breaks out?
Just remember that, in case you wish to remain, you will be helpful if:
- You have military training or experience
- You have medical or paramedical experience
- You can act as a translator, with fluent knowledge of the local idiom and other multiple languages (assisting in foreign legions and so on).
- You have mechanical, engineering, or logistical skills.
If you do not fit any of these cases, there is a good chance that you will not be useful during the conflict, or require military training in a very limited (and often unrealistic) timeframe.
What to Do During a War
If you managed to escape the war zone and returned to your home country or became a refugee in a third state, the first step is to contact assistance from organizations like the UNHCR.
Store the resources (cash, gold, and other assets) that you brought in a secure place and exchange just the necessary into local currency.
Always adopt a realistic outlook. Wars have the potential to destroy the infrastructure of a country, so it is unlikely that you will return soon to your former home.
Besides, modern wars are not quick. While larger forces may conquer territory quickly, most modern conflicts are prolonged by enduring guerrilla fights. Here are how long it took for some of the most recent examples:
- Second Congo War: 5 years (1998–2003)
- Syrian Civil War: 11 years, ongoing.
- Iraq War: 8 years (2003–2011)
- Afghanistan War: 19 years (2001–2021)
- Yemen War: 7 years, ongoing.
Why am I telling you that? Because the sooner you accept that it may take years for you to return, the better you start to adapt to a new country.
Be kind to people that are receiving you. Here in Poland, people are doing their best, but due to the sheer volume of incoming refugees, it is difficult, and even the most dedicated volunteers are under stress.
Try to find a source of income or a job. Don’t expect to live with the same standards that you were living before, at least at the beginning.
What to Do After a War
I hope you followed the tip of keeping all your receipts and documents attesting to the ownership of your assets, right?
Once the war finishes, and you return to your country, it is time to seek compensation for everything the invaders took from you — considering that your side was the winner and repelled the invasion.
For this purpose, it will be essential that you use the documents certifying the ownership of your house, car, or anything else you lost due to the conflict.
In Poland, for example, there is even a government institute that, among other functions, assesses the war reparations that German invaders should pay for the Second World War, among other things.
Be aware that war reparations may take years, even decades to be paid, and there is a chance that it will not be you, but your kids that will receive them.
Conclusion on what to do if war breaks out
1st Phase: How to Prepare Financially for War
- Withdraw from your account a substantial amount of money. Enough to last a few months. Bank runs and cash shortages are common before wars.
- If your country is directly involved, avoid keeping local currency. Swap it for the currency of a neutral country.
- Convert hard-to-carry assets into mobile assets like gold, that you can easily carry or hide.
2nd Phase: What to do if war is imminent.
- Prepare an emergency wallet with your documents, cash, passport, and keys.
- Study the fastest possible flight and train schedules, as well as the quickest routes to the border, in the event that air travel and railways are disrupted.
- If you are a foreigner, like me, contact your embassy and ask about their contingency plans for the outbreak of war.
- Carry ALL documents proving ownership of vehicles, land, houses, assets, and so on. This includes fiscal receipts, notarized acts, and transfer notes.
- Nominate trustworthy people in another country to be your children’s guardians, to protect them if the worst happens. Include them in your life insurance policy.
3rd Phase: What to Do During a War (as a refugee)
- Modern wars are not quick, taking years or even decades during their guerrilla phase. Therefore, try to settle in and adapt from the very beginning.
- Contact assistance from institutions like the Red Cross, Caritas, or UNHCR.
- Be courteous to those who are receiving you. If you feel homesick, take a look at this article about how to deal with it.
- Try to find a job or a source of income. Do not expect to live up to your previous living standards, at least not at first.
4th Phase: What to Do After the War
- Use the documents you kept all this time to demand war reparations from the invader.
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